The phenanthrene-degrading activity (PDA) of Pseudomonas putida ATCC 17484 was repressed after incubation with plant root extracts of oat (Avena sativa), osage orange (Maclura pomifera), hybrid willow (Salix alba × matsudana), kou (Cordia subcordata) and milo (Thespesia populnea) and plant root exudates of oat (Avena sativa) and hybrid poplar (Populus deltoides × nigra DN34). Total organic carbon content of root extracts ranged from 103 to 395 mg l−1. Characterization of root extracts identified acetate (not detectable to 8.0 mg l−1), amino acids (1.7–17.3 mg l−1) and glucose (1.6–14.0 mg l−1), indicating a complex mixture of substrates. Repression was also observed after exposure to potential root-derived substrates, including organic acids, glucose (carbohydrate) and glutamate (amino acid). Carbon source regulation (e.g. catabolite repression) was apparently responsible for the observed repression of P. putida PDA by root extracts. However, we showed that P. putida grows on root extracts and exudates as sole carbon and energy sources. Enhanced growth on root products may compensate for partial repression, because larger microbial populations are conducive to faster degradation rates. This would explain the commonly reported increase in phenanthrene removal in the rhizosphere.